For three years, Kristiana Rigney, a dirt-bike-riding, soccer-playing, hunting-and-fishing outdoors enthusiast from Mooresville, couldn’t catch her breath after the simplest movement.
She couldn’t sleep either, as her heart raced at 180 to 190 beats per minute, about the average heart rate of world-class runners in a marathon.
The normal resting heart rate of a person 18 or older is 60 to 100 beats per minute. Rigney’s rare condition afflicts only about 100 people in the country, as of January, doctors told her.
So Rigney, 20, had to delay college and her pursuit of a zoo-based veterinary career, and stop the outdoor activities she’d always loved. Her mom desperately searched for answers, a journey that led her to the Overland Park Regional Medical Center in Kansas.
That’s where she would become the youngest person in the country to undergo rapidly pioneering surgery to deal with a beating heart condition. The surgery was performed April 21.
OUT OF BREATH
Rigney’s heart condition began to emerge as she recovered from the last of three hip surgeries she’d undergone since she was 14.
She couldn’t play with her black lab, Cash — short for Johnny Cash — and her family’s black lab, Rocky — short for Rocky Balboa. And she couldn’t tend to the family’s beloved beta fish, Blueberry and Dumbo.
In October, she tried riding her Kawaski KLX G dirt bike on the trail she and her family carved on their five wooded acres, but she soon ran out of breath. The bike sits waiting for her in the garage to crank up once again — a day she feared might never arrive.
MOM’S SEARCH FOR HELP
Kristiana’s mother, Jennifer Rigney, searched tirelessly for a doctor who could help, and visited ones in North Carolina, Tennessee and Minnesota.
On a visit to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, a doctor told her nothing more could be done for her daughter than the many medications she was on, Jennifer Rigney said.
But the doctor mentioned a research study that showed good results from a rare type of heart surgery used in Europe but not FDA-approved.
FINDING THE STUDY, AND THE DOCTOR
Back home in Mooresville, Jennifer Rigney scoured medical journals and found the study in Heart Rhythm, the journal of the Heart Rhythm Society. She contacted the study’s principal investigator, Dr. Dhanunjaya Lakkireddy.
Lakkireddy is a cardiologist and executive medical director of the Kansas City Heart Rhythm Institute at HCA Midwest Health in Overland Park, Kansas. He and another cardiologist agreed to perform the surgery on Kristiana.
“I thought she was going to be with this forever,” Jennifer Rigney told The Charlotte Observer. “But a mother will do anything to keep her kids safe.”
The two-hour surgery involved doctors using a long stick-like device burning the errant blood vessels that caused the heart to beat rapidly, Kristiana Rigney told The Charlotte Observer.
It was a success. Her heartbeat had returned to normal.
She was discharged on April 29 and flew home with her mom last week.
The hospital spotlighted Kristiana Rigney’s health journey in a May 3 post on its website, and featured her and her surgeons at a news conference. The Kansas City Star and local TV stations profiled her remarkable comeback.
“These doctors are my heroes,” Kristiana Rigney said in the post on the hospital website. “The nurses are my angels from heaven. I have so much living left, and I’m grateful to everyone at this hospital who helped me live again.”
She felt, she later told the Observer, that she had “been given a new life.”
PLANS FOR THE FUTURE
Rigney now faces six months of recovery. She plans to resume her freshman year zoology studies at the Oregon State University ECampus in the fall, and add the martial art jiu-jitsu to her list of activities. She also plays the guitar and piano.
And she guarantees what she’ll do when her six-month recovery is up: She walk into the garage and rev up that bike.